“Woah. This is fire weather.”
My partner says from our Santa Rosa, California stoop on October 8th, that fateful and tragic 75-degree Sunday night. The wind was ripping through the streets at 60 miles per hour. The enormous redwood trees around us were flailing wildly, as though they were made of rubber. We were kept awake by the sound of huge branches falling around us, one 10-footer piercing the porch roof of our neighbor’s house.
Not six hours later, we got a loud knock on our bedroom window.
“There’s a wildfire coming our way, Santa Rosa is being evacuated. We gotta get out of here.”
My sister, who lives next door, had received a knock on the door from her neighbor and she came over to share the warning. It was 3:30am and already, the street we live on was jam packed. Bumper to bumper traffic as people were fleeing south, away from the encroaching fire. Rumors and speculation were rampant. People were yelling from their cars that major landmarks throughout the city were up in flames. The air was full of toxic smoke. We quickly dressed and communed to decide what to do.
With almost no reliable information available yet, we packed our cars with the things that we felt were most critical, and our unwitting cat, and got into the traffic to head 20 miles west of the city to our parents’ home. We were prepared for the worst. As we slowly made our way out of the city, the hills on the horizon in the dark hours of the morning were glowing red with the fire that was moving nearly 30 miles per hour from the north, consuming everything in its path.
For the next five days, we were glued to tv and radio news, stunned, as we watched our city burn. We clung to our phones which delivered unrelenting emergency text messages about new parts of town that were being evacuated. Every day we heard about more beloved homes of family members and friends lost to the inferno. We moved cautiously and strategically on the roads, keeping the highways clear for emergency vehicles, and avoiding parts of the city that were on mandatory evacuation. We stayed in constant communication with our loved ones who live within the fires’ deadly reach, and shared space with them whenever we could.
The seven Northern California fires remained at 0% containment for nearly five days. They were unpredictable and uncontrollable. Even with thousands of firefighters from around the world working around the clock, we were entirely at the mercy of the weather patterns of the hours ahead.
In the end, thousands of homes were destroyed, hundreds of businesses, and hundreds of thousands of acres of land throughout Sonoma County, reaching into Napa. The fires burned for almost three weeks.
In the spirit of the season, I feel grateful that my home still stands. Grateful for a community that has banded together to support one another through this communal trauma. Grateful for story-sharing, and the sense of empathy that we all feel towards one another. And grateful that those who lost their homes within my family and friend circles have the resources to recover, albeit slow and painstaking.
At the same time, I am acutely aware that that’s not the case for thousands of people. Those who did not have renter’s insurance. Did not have documentation of their citizenship (or lost it in the fire). Are facing eviction to provide housing for family members of landowners who lost homes, and a virtually non-existent rental market to turn to. People who lost their jobs, their pets, their cars, their medications. Students and employees of the local colleges who lost their homes and their ability to study, pass classes or teach…
And those who lost their lives or their loved ones. Some perished in the fire, not able to escape, and some died by suicide, overwhelmed by the aftermath.
Now we’re adjusting to a new normal in Sonoma County. Recovery from here is a long journey, and resilience is the name of the game.
Here are some things that this experience has taught me:
- The trauma suffered by the community is real, and it’s deep. Depression and Posttraumatic Stress in the aftermath of a disaster comes in waves, and onset may be delayed. Keeping an eye on those around you who have experienced a community trauma beyond the incident is critical. It doesn’t go away quickly. Support will be needed for a long time to come.
- Know thy neighbors. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never taken the step to introduce myself to my neighbors, know who they are, and feel able to call upon them in an emergency. When the emergency hit, I wished deeply that I’d had the names and contact information of those who live immediately around me so that we could have kept an eye out for one another.
- It’s not “just stuff.” Yes, homes are material, and in some ways replaceable. But our memories, our livelihood, our sense of safety and independence are intricately entwined with our homes. Though tempting, it’s not helpful to try to console someone who’s lost everything with the “thank goodness it’s just stuff” line.
As the sign hanging on the burnt remains of the Trader Joe’s one mile from my house says,
“Like the phoenix, from the ashes, we will rise.” #sonomastrong
If you were/are impacted by the Northern and Southern California fires, or any of the other recent natural disasters, there is support.